High and lows.
The Kings had extra time off upon returning home from their 5-0 thrashing over the Philadelphia Flyers. They had three days to build up to Wednesday’s marquee matchup against the Knights. The Knights had previously beaten the Kings in a shootout at the tail end of week three. It would be the Kings who put together their most complete 60 min effort against the defending Stanley Cup Champions and Pacific Division rival and frontrunner.
Vegas had multiple players out, and while it was still a marquee matchup, it wasn’t necessarily beating the boys in gold at full strength. Regardless, the Kings won against a rival to finish their road trip 4-0-0. The NHL has a funny ebb-and-flow feel to the schedule. Coming off their win against Vegas on their quick road trip mostly spent at home, they were set to face the underrated Penguins, who, I agree with Crosby, “play better than their record shows.”
The Pittsburg game was Copley’s first game since he allowed three goals on six shots against the Coyotes on the 27th of October. The Kings would falter under Copley, who allowed a shorthanded goal while playing deep in his net and two wrap-around goals, one being a decisive overtime winner.
Now, the more alarming game. The Kings made significant line changes for the first time in the season before the Flyers game. Not that it can be entirely pointed to for the game’s outcome, but the Kings looked purely disconnected. They couldn’t connect passes, their game management could have been better, and they lost to a team that is not expected to make the playoffs this season. I have nothing against the Flyers, who notably blocked shots at a higher rate and were willing to sacrifice their bodies and win 50/50 pucks consistently throughout the match. The more motivated and ready team won that game, not the more skilled team. The Flyers ended the eight-game point streak of the Kings. The more skilled team now sits at a demoralizing 1-3-3 at home following the loss to the Flyers.
Kevin Fiala and Pierre Luc Dubois
The last years of offseason trade acquisition had played dynamic hockey together in the preseason. Yes, the preseason. They played well the first few weeks but have been broken up before the Flyers game. Todd McLellan wants to get both of them going. Dubois was put into a position where he can now be the alpha on that line. He has Kaliyev and Laferrerie as wingers, two players who have looked excellent on forecheck work, particularly Kaliyev, who has blossomed into a more well-rounded player this year.
Fiala has always been a vivacious player who is dynamic when he has the puck. The outlier in his skillset, or maybe even a death knell, is that he has historically not been able to play with other premiere talent. Going back to Minnesota, he didn’t have longevity with Zuccarello or Kaprizov. He had trouble playing with Kopitar and Kempe last year, to boot. Playing on a line with Danault and Moore, one of the best duos the Kings have produced since Kopitar and Brown, the hope was that they would emulate some of their success in the portion of ice time they all shared together late into the season last year.
Though it was just one game, the line was a combined -7, with Fiala being the team’s only -3 for the night. The newly formed Dubois line was a combined -5. The lowest point was Fiala’s visible frustration on the bench and his skating to the bench immediately following a failed powerplay in defeat. I understand trying to get the players going, but was the line mixup too soon? Kaliyev was starting to blossom next to Phil and Moore. The Kings were winning overall with their past formula. The third line wasn’t producing due to the fall off of chemistry between Fiala and Dubois, but it was likely untimely to swap them playing a team finishing a back-to-back and having five days until the next contest.
With this set-up, I expect a bounce back from Fiala in the long term, given his reputation and pedigree as an athlete of the sport. The locker room culture is too strong and maintained by champions to let this spiral. Fiala will be fine. Dubois will be forced to carry a line, and while his points may suffer, he must find a new gear.
Powerplay Woes, Penalty Kill Supreme
The Kings have been shut out after going 2/4 on the powerplay against Vegas. They were 0/3 against Pittsburg and 0/3 against Philly. To make that 0/6 sting much worse, they also allowed a shorthanded goal during that stretch. The Kings’ powerplay was a major carrying factor last year, as they finished inside the top five in the entire league in that category. One of the significant cogs on their units was Gabriel Vilardi, who was the centerpiece in the blockbuster trade to Winnipeg for Dubois. The other absent cog is Viktor Arvidsson, who had back surgery. Both are righties who acted as established, impact players who work as both shot and pass threats on the man advantage.
The entire first powerplay unit is lefties, with the exemption of Doughty working the point as a defenseman. Dubois has moved up to the top unit following the Arvidsson injury, and the unit has yet to hum the way they did last year. Dubois has made his living on the powerplay during his time in Winnipeg. I’m surprised he isn’t just being parked as the net front. I’ve seen most of his set-up in the Umbrella as the flank off of the half walls. The Kings sit 17th in the league in the powerplay at 18.6%.
On a brighter note, since the powerplay goal scored by Kubalik in Ottawa off of the Stutzle Premiere League play, the Kings have killed off 13 consecutive powerplays. Their new diamond formation has left some isolation in front of the net. The passing from the other team has to be practically perfect. If it is not extremely crisp, the penalty killer fronting the shot has been able to collapse on the player with rapid anticipation, forcing the opposing player to make a forced play to an open but isolated player. The secondary penalty killer follows the play towards the lone player, causing a 50/50 puck, at a minimum, a board battle. The third penalty killer can support in numbers, leaving the fourth penalty killer to monitor the ice and net. So far, this has thrown teams out of sync and has propelled the Kings to fourth in the NHL in the PK at 87.2%. Much improved from the last few years.
The Kings have an abundance of time off after a tough start to the season, a total of four days. To this point, they’ve been dominant on the road and lackluster at home, a headscratcher, to say the least. Their PK has drastically improved, but their powerplay is middling and struggling. I expect them to use the four days to their advantage, possibly implementing a swap on the powerplay units or, at a minimum, dedicating a day to its maintenance.
Florida Panthers and Kings Thursday. It’ll be nice to see a Tkachuk Doughty reunion.